On Friday, the Northwestern University football squad will be voting about whether or not to become the first NCAA team to unionize. The Wildcats—and how perfect a name is “wildcats”—will be voting to have a seat at the table to discuss the manifest issues that come with playing a “sport” that requires as much as sixty hours a week of their time. They are also voting despite ominous warnings from their coach Pat Fitzgerald that a union has no place in their locker room. In Coach Fitzgerald’s world, there will be no dental plan no matter how badly Lisa needs braces.
As discussed previously, it takes an enormous amount of chutzpah for Fitzgerald to so strenuously oppose the efforts of his players to have a seat at the table when he is making $2.2 million per year and received a $2.5 million loan from the school upon signing his most recent contract. Yet Fitzgerald’s stance is not only distasteful. It may be illegal.
Here is the substance of the email that Fitzgerald sent to is team on April 14. He wrote, “Understand that by voting to have a union, you would be transferring your trust from those you know — me, your coaches and the administrators here — to what you don’t know — a third party who may or may not have the team’s best interests in mind…. In my heart, I know that the downside of joining a union is much bigger than the upside. You have nothing to gain by forming a union.”
Fitzgerald is also part of what The New York Times called, “A Blitz to Defeat an Effort to Unionize”, where members of the Northwestern administration, trustees and alumni are devoting an incredible amount of time and resources to make sure that a few dozen teenagers know their place. CBSSports.com obtained a copy of a twenty-one-page anti-union manifesto distributed to players rife with portentous warnings about what a union could bring.
People may disagree about whether what Fitzgerald is doing is immoral. But is it illegal? Attorney Lester Munson said on ESPN.com, “As the employer, Fitzgerald [and his assistants] are entitled to urge “no” votes. They can try to explain to the players that the union is a bad idea for them and for the school, but they must be careful in what they say. Under the law that governs union elections, Fitzgerald and his crew may not indulge in statements that could be viewed as threats, promises, interrogations, [or] retaliation.” (my emphasis)
In attempting to understand, whether based solely on what we know, if Fitzgerald is acting in an illegal manner, I thought it would be best to ask a labor lawyer with some experience in these matters. I spoke with Tony Paris, lead attorney with the Maurice & Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice—a nonprofit organization, dedicated to issues that low-income people face around the country.